The Harm of Racial Code Words
The Trent Lott affair last month reminded us that racial politics in Washington often are discussed in code words. Sen. Lott praised the 1948 presidential campaign of former Sen. Strom Thurman, and most people listening knew that he was praising Thurmans Dixiecrat policies which advocated segregation and unfair advantages for whites. Yet, because he did not come out and say, I hate blacks, because he has helped a few African American entrepreneurs in his state, and because most of us would just as well let a slur go by if it does not affect us directly, Sen. Lott would be our new Senate Majority Leader if his remarks had not been captured on a cable television tape and then condemned by critics in the media.
Similarly, instead of saying I will honor the rights of whites over blacks, Southern politicians and their allies simply say, I support states rights, thereby gaining the support of many whites who believe that they deserve unfair advantages over blacks. When Ronald Reagan began his successful 1980 quest for the White House, for example, he knew that he could galvanize the Southern white vote by speaking in Philadelphia, Miss., scene of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, and refering to his support for states rights.
Unfortunately, despite his laudable appointments of racial minorities to his cabinet, his clear and appropriate denunciation of Sen. Lotts praise of segregation, and his hiring of many Asian Pacific Americans to sub-Cabinet and policy roles, President Bush is continuing to use racial code words that create confusion and misunderstanding. Words such as quota, which he used incorrectly to describe a University of Michigan approach to affirmative action, give credibility to critics who see the president as a politician who will say anything to placate his foes while pushing his own political agenda at all costs. He will praise Martin Luther King, Jr., and allow Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to say that they had benefited from affirmative action and differ from the Administrations position on the Michigan cases, yet at the end of the day, the official Bush position could hasten the demise of the legal framework that has done so much to give minorities a chance in education and elsewhere in society.
On Jan. 15, the day before the Bush Administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court opposing the University of Michigan undergraduate and law school affirmative action plans, President Bush said, I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education. But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes perspective students, based solely on their race.
The president argued that programs he set up in Texas when he was governor, as well as similar programs in Florida and California, can achieve diversity without quotas, by guaranteeing admission to top state universities to those at the top of their high school classes. Unfortunately, these policies count on an equally unfortunate history of housing segregation, so that, for example, bright minority students can rise to the top of minority-only high schools. And these Bush-backed plans have not achieved results comparable to the results seen in race-conscious plans such as were used at Michigan and elsewhere.
President Bush grossly mischaracterizes the University of Michigan program as a quota system, and hurts our ability to have a fair and open discussion of an important topic, by raising fears of unjust exclusionary laws that were used historically to keep African Americans, APAs, Jews, Catholics, and others out of schools and jobs. A true quota system is the admission of a fixed number of candidates from a group without investigating the actual abilities of the individual candidates from that group. No one on any side of the issue has argued that quotas are legal since the 1978 University of California v. Bakke decision, so President Bushs raising of this code word does not further discussion. Instead, some would argue that this remark signals to his white supporters that he really did not mean to condemn Sen. Lott and that he still supports unfair privileges for whites.
The University of Michigan admissions program, like many others around the country, is a point system that considers many factors, including race. Bush himself, for example, might not have gotten into Yale University, given his mediocre high school record, unless he had the advantage of affirmative action for legacy candidates (those whose ancestors had attended the school and donated generously).
President Bushs criticism about the Michigan program centers on race-based factors such as giving underrepresented minorities 20 points toward a maximum 150 point score, while a high SAT score can add only 12 points to a students admissions point total. In reality, Michigan gives 110 of 150 points for academic factors, and the other points can be granted because of race, economic hardship, legacy status, and even geographic factors. For instance, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is inhabited almost completely by whites, yet there are so few Upper Peninsula residents who attend UM that a student from there can get up to 20 points simply for geographic reasons. The president does not object to this factor, which clearly has a negative effect on racial minorities.
In sum, there are many principled ways Americans can remove racial boundaries and improve educational opportunities for racial minorities and others who are disadvantaged. Using racially charged code words such as quota, however, serves only to polarize and undermine a crucial educational debate.
The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (http://www.napalc.org) has resources available on affirmative action, including a rebuttal of the common myths surrounding the University of Michigan cases. The best resource for an overview of the affirmative action issue is Beyond Self Interest: APAs Toward A Community of Justice by law professors Jack Chin, Sumi Cho, Jerry Kang, and Frank Wu (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/aasc/policy/).
Reach Phil Tajitsu Nash at email@example.com.